July 11-13, 2008
Night of the Nets: Passage to Italy
by Lois Joy
Vathi Bay, Ithaca, Greece
July 11: We are eager to cast off. Today seems like the perfect day to leave. During the past three days of meltemi (north wind) here, charter yachts have come and gone, med-moored tight next to us, dropping their bow anchors over ours, sixty feet out. But this morning, there are no yachts crossing our anchor; we are free to weigh anchor early, our Delta buried deep in mud. Our crew—two young women aged twenty-one— is experienced by now. Randi Jo and Kaela expertly cast off, tie the dock lines to the lifelines, and stow the fenders in the sail locker, clearing the deck for our two-day passage to Italy.
We motor out of long, picturesque Vathi Bay, past the charming church perched on the cliff, marveling at the high mountain road we had driven during our road tour of the island. The road to Kathara monastery, on the highest peak, looks even more dangerous from the sea, because one cannot see the guard rails we know are there. I imagine someone enamored of the spectacular view below, driving off that mountain, falling…falling into the sea below.
Insert photo 01 Lois and Kaela at Overlook to Vathi Bay
Wrap smaller photo either above or below:
02 The road to Kathara Monastery from the sea
The Windjammer album of Amazing Grace continues to play through all of the versions, including the bagpipes, as we hum along the lush coast of Ithaca on seas of teal glass. We all feel good about the passage. We three women have had a bout of flu for the past three days—combined with the heat exhaustion of enduring 42º C. temperatures without air conditioning. But today, we are all rested and alert, having taken an extra day for R&R.
By 0950, we are opposite Frikes Bay, only seven miles from Vathi. “Should we stop here in this beautiful bay and spend the night?” asks Gunter.
“No way!” we cry out in unison. We are done with Greece and looking forward to Italy. Our crew has been sitting up at the net, rehashing the cultural shocks of their nights out with the local boys of Ithaca. Now they are steeling themselves for pinches on the butt by the Italian boys.
By 1040, we are crossing the Kefallina Strait. There is no need to stop in that westernmost island of Greece; we checked out in Ithaca. The wind has increased to Force 2, with gusts to 3—not high, but the seas are confused in the aftermath of the meltemi. Just when the crew begins to get queasy, the wind eases. By noon, we have passed beyond the northern tip of Kefallina, headed west across the Ionian Sea. I make a batch of pasta sauce for this evening’s dinner.
By 1500, the wind changes to F3, west, on the nose (not in the forecast, of course) and the seas become lumpy again. I conduct a training session for our crew. This is their first overnight. The wind increases to F4. Kaela sits at the helm, pale as milk, and then throws up her lunch and feels better. Randi Jo is queasy, but not that sick. I feel for them; they are getting the complete “experience.” Cheese, crackers, chips and pretzels are all anyone wants for dinner. The pasta will have to wait. The chop continues until sunset, then gradually eases.
Gunter, Randi Jo, and I watch the sun slowly dip into the WNW horizon (reminding us that we are above 38º latitude) as we head directly west. “Watch for the green flash,” I explain the phenomenon. All three of us see the flash, not a flare like I’ve experienced near the equator, but a confined center, green streaks on gold, like a tightly woven ball of yarn. Awesome!
Randi Jo and I take the 9-12 PM watch. The twilight is long as it fades to orange, yellow, and finally an amber-brown. The moon rises from the other horizon as the sunset fades, and at first, only the red-tinged evening star can compete with its glow. Gradually the constellations appear, but they are dim.
“You’ll see them better during our 3-6 AM watch, after the moon sets,” I say to Randi Jo, who is used to the clear night skies of Minnesota, USA. During that watch, the Milky Way is a ladder of gossamer film that stretches across the sky from port to starboard. Now the stars are too thick for us to identify the constellations! We sit at the helm in awe, as our conversation roams from God and His creation, to how the ancients navigated by the stars, both on sea and on land via camel caravans. At the first faint light of dawn, we marvel how the light spreads across the entire sea—rippled navy glass with darkened grooves. When Gunter comes up on watch, we both go down and sleep until 10:00AM.
We come back up on deck to see Gunter humming away, happy and peaceful, one engine droning away at 5.2 knots in a calming F1 breeze. “Better nothing than lumpy and on the nose,” he comments.
“Just burn diesel,” I reply. “Whatever it takes.”
We enter this day calmly, sipping coffee and eating yogurt with bananas. About 1400 (2 PM) I finally serve the pasta, to the acclaims of our crew, who has regained their appetites. Gunter and I share the 4-6 PM watch. The wind changes to F3 from the south, and then F4. Gunter and Kaela unfurl the jib. By 1615, we have a sirocco (south wind) of 12 knots. Sailing due west, it will be a beam reach. We hoist the main. This may be the only time the crew will have the experience of being propelled under full sail. Usually the Med lives up to Gunter’s acronym for it: MED, Miserable Every Direction.
Randi Jo and Kaela sit together at the port helm, excited and effervescent, the swishing sound of the sea leaving a wake beyond the the swim steps, the setting sun illuminating their fresh faces, Pacific Bliss galloping along between 8 and 9 knots. “Remember this,” I interrupt their reverie, “you may never sail this fast in a small monohull. If the wind goes higher, we will go even faster.”
As the sun sets, the wind dies. We furl in the jib, douse the main, and motor on into the night.
Insert or wrap Photo 08 Sun sets over the east coast of Italy the second night of our passage
Our 9-12 watch is busy. We are approaching the mainland of Italy and boat traffic is increasing. At one point, we have three boat lights to identify—very confusing with the damp fog rolling in the aftermath of the sirocco. I turn on the radar and explain it to Randi Jo. She watches outside, while I scan the radar to determine whether we are on a collision course with any of them. At one point, Pacific Bliss is wedged between a container ship and a ferry, both headed to the mainland alongside us, but not quite parallel, at such an angle we cannot deviate course either way. Another time, a fast ferry appears suddenly out of the fog, angling past our starboard stern in a matter of minutes. It is an adrenalin-pumping watch, requiring constant vigilance. By 2345, with 15 minutes to go on our watch, we spy an ominous, black roll cloud toward our port. I recognize it as a storm system headed our way, possibly a squall, and I am relieved that we don’t have to deal with reefing sails. The helm seats are wet with the heavy fog. I bring out foul weather gear and safety harnesses for Gunter and Kaela, prepared for the worst.
As Randi Jo and I collapsed into our berths, exhausted, I fully expected to be awakened by a rain storm. They might need four sets of eyes. But instead, I am awakened by the strange sound of silence. The engines have stopped. I throw on light clothes and rush topside. Pacific Bliss is not moving forward at all.
The cockpit smells of popcorn and butter. A partially empty bowl of nuts sits on the table.
No one is at the helm.
Out of the fog comes Gunter’s strained voice from the middle of the starboard hull. “It’s the daggerboard. It’s caught on a huge net. I tried to pull it up, and now the net is pulled up too. I don’t know how we will get it out without cutting it.”
I walk toward the voice. Kaela is there too. “You are NOT snorkeling down in this fog to cut it out!” I am adamant. I recall the terror of his snorkeling at night to cut a fish net near Langkawi, Malaysia. That time we had moonlight. This net is much larger. Stronger than those of Southeast Asia. Bigger holes. It would not be easy to cut.
“How long till it’s light enough?”
“Almost four more hours, and in this fog, could be more.”
“Then we just sit here?”
“Right. It’s the safest.” But I only knew part of the story; I assumed one fishing boat, one net.
“Maybe the fisherman comes by and picks up his net?”
“Possibly. When it’s light.”
“Then maybe he could free us from his boat. We’ll put out our fenders. I think these big nets are for tuna—swordfish maybe.”
“Yeah, the nets that trap the poor dolphins.”
“And we are one huge whale, sitting here.”
The three of us stand there at the daggerboard, waiting, thinking.
“How about trying to call the fishermen now, giving our position?”
“Doubt they have VHF, but I’ll try.”
“These fishing boats are probably more sophisticated than those in Southeast Asia; they probably communicate with each other.”
I pick up the VHF speaker at the Nav Station; I call on Channel 16, International. “Pacific Bliss trapped in a fishing net at 37º50.52 North, 16º09.21East. I repeat…”
There is no answer. The radar is showing more boats now, small images on the screen. Outside, Kaela squints at the dim lights.
I repeat my call. A commercial vessel answers, but he is 30 miles away from us. A sailing vessel, Mary Jane, answers. “We’re near to you, not caught. How do we get out of here? We are surrounded by boats.”
“Go away, out to sea, as far away from the shore as you can,” someone else chimes in. This is my first inkling that things will be even more difficult than we thought. Mary Jane answers and they continue on in French. Gunter is calling me back to the daggerboard.
“Lets all three of us push down hard on the daggerboard at once.” We try, but the daggerboard does not move. “We need more weight.”
I rouse Randi Jo. She comes up and I gain everyone’s attention. “Lets all four of us join hands and pray before we push with all our might, hanging on the daggerboard. Then keep pushing while you’re praying.” We push again, all together, with superhuman strength.
Push. Pray. Hang onto that board with all our weight. It works! Miraculously, God answers our prayers and the net works itself free. Orange floats carry it off. Gunter puts both engines into reverse.
“Now where?” he asks.
“The advice on the VHF is out to sea.”
I go to MaxSea and direct Ray, our autopilot, due south, opposite the Italian coast. We were already five miles out when we snagged the net. Normally, this would be sufficiently outside of any fishing area, but these nets are for big fish…
“Stop!” yells Kaela, on the pulpit seat with a flashlight. Randi Jo is on the other seat with another flashlight. Gunter slams the engines into reverse.
“Which way?” he yells.
“I don’t know. It’s strung all the way in front of us. We cannot go forward.”
Gunter turns back toward the shore, the way we came. There would be no going out to sea. Then he stops the engines and goes forward to the net. “You need better light than this.” He plugs in the spotlight and passes it through the nav station window. Fortunately, he had extended the cable, so it reaches all the way to the bow. On the radar, I find what I think is an opening between the increasing numbers of fishing boats and direct Ray that way. We would be paralleling the shore, not back on our track toward the Messina Strait, but east. My plan is to go between them, get out of the encircling boats, then go out to sea and around back on course to the west. It might take hours to do accomplish, but at least we would be out of here. We ease forward at 2-3 knots, Kaela scanning the seas in front of us for nets with orange floats and Randi Jo peering into the fog, directing her. Once Kaela shined the light on orange clouds of flying insects and almost mistook it for a float. We inch forward for one mile.
“Stop!” yells Kaela. “Reverse. Another net!”
Gunter slams into reverse. “Now where?”
“We can’t get through. It is impossible. The whole area in front of us is blocked with nets.
“Lois, find a way. I need to know where to go.”
I check the radar again. Boats on all sides now—over a dozen of them. I peer out into the fog. We are in an impossible situation. We don’t dare go out the way we came, yet we can’t go further out to sea or backwards east. The only solution seems to be to go sort of back on our track, headed west around the coast toward Sicily, but a little farther out so that we don’t pick up the first net again.
“But there are lights that way too,” says Gunter.
“I think there may be a path.” We inch forward again, ever so slowly.
“Stop!” yells Randi Jo. ‘Quick. Now. Back.’
Gunter slams the engines into reverse for the third time. I run up to our net. Right in front of it, a huge net crosses our bows, less than 10 feet away. This is a close one. I am stymied. We have tried three directions. There is no way out. We are trapped like a huge whale. Like the dolphins.
“What about going in real close to shore?” says Gunter.
“I’m not comfortable going in that close to an unfamiliar shore at night, and in the fog, no less.”
“Well then we just sit here taking turns on anchor watch, I should say fishing net watch, until morning.”
I check the radar again. I can see the images more clearly now. They are coming closer in, and there are more of them. I lose count at 20; there must be two dozen at least. We are surrounded now, in a cage of no retreat. I have a horrible sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Don’t these fishermen realize what they are doing to us? They can see our running lights, our huge spotlight scanning back and forth at the bows.
I go up to the bows for a closer look. “There seems to be a large vessel coming toward us from the west, or maybe from the coast, hard to tell. We can observe how they manage to get through.”
“I think it is the lead fisherman, showing us the way out of here,” says Gunter. “Kaela, shine the spotlight on him.”
She shines the spotlight toward the boat. “There’s a flashing light.”
“OK,” I answer. “Either that boat is flashing the light to show us the opening or maybe there is actually ONE lit buoy marking this circle of nets…out of 20 or more nets here, there should be some law against this…”
“There is,” says Gunter as we wait silently. “We are in southern Italian waters, headed toward Sicily; you think they follow the laws here?” The boat appears to be separating from the flashing light. “Let’s go,” says Gunter.
“I’m heading for that light. I think that boat is showing us the way out.”
“But the boat is continuing along the shore…”
Gunter begins to inch the throttle forward. I was not OK with it. “I just checked our incoming track on MaxSea. We are heading back to where we got caught. We have now come full circle.”
“Then put it on AUTO again, and direct Ray diagonally toward that blinking light, but away from where we stopped. Let’s just take it real slow.” Gunter nudges the throttle barely above idle, ready to slam into reverse instantly. I set a course less than one-half mile way from where we were entangled, yet hopefully far enough away to miss the next net in the enclosing circle, adrenalin pumping, stomach churning, every nerve taut. The power boat continues east, close along the coast. But we all believe that God has used the power boat to show us the way out. This circle of nets has to have an entrance and exit!
“Please, God,” we are all praying now, desperate to get out. The trapped feeling is indescribable. My emotions range from fear of a worse entanglement, to anger at the fishermen, to just plain free-floating anxiety. I am drenched with sweat, even though the evening is cool. But praying brings me peace.
“It is definitely a warning buoy,” calls out Randi Jo. “I can see it clearly now.” Kaela flashes the spotlight on a stick rising from the waves. We edge past the buoy and we are finally home free.
It is now 0500. Gunter speeds up. We play out our watch schedules. Randi Jo and I are on until 0600. We take Pacific Bliss around the remainder of the bottom of Italy’s foot, then crash in our berths. When I awake for our 9-12 watch, we are droning up the eastern coast of Italy under gray skies. To our starboard, the gloomy clouds of the sirocco hang over the mountains. To our port is Sicily, under another blanket of fluffy dark clouds. We are in the Strait of Messina and the traffic is heavy with ferries, ships, and power yachts. It is Sunday morning in Italy.
July 13: An Unwelcome Arrival in Reggio Calabria
“All hands on deck,” Gunter calls. We are all beyond exhausted, in need of a long rest, and hope to have it in Reggio. The harbor is behind a huge breakwater, easy to identify. But as we enter the breakwater of the commercial harbor, and progress slowly to what our Pilot calls the “yacht basin,” we can already see that it is (1) much smaller than we thought, (2) jammed full with large and small powerboats, (3) contains only a few sailing vessels, (4) probably has no room for yachts-in-transit, even though it is listed as a port of entry. I had called from Ithaca, and had been told that they had no space but “might” have space if we arrived on Sunday, relaying the message through an English-speaking yachtie who just happened to be in their office. They all speak Italian only. But there is no answer now to my VHF call. Gunter edges Pacific Bliss toward the tiny turning area, only twice our boat width. A Coast Guard vessel is coming out and motions us away.
“Talk to them,” says Gunter.
“I tried. They just motioned us out. ‘Talk to the man over there,’ they said. I motioned to him; he just motions me away to the commercial dock. It is obvious that they just want us to go away.”
At the commercial quay, two young men in crisp white uniforms await us. Gunter carefully edges Pacific Bliss alongside a huge rubber barrel fastened to a high, rough cement quay. There is nowhere else to go and we desperately need a rest. The men help us tie up and arrange stern and spring lines.
Insert 10 Fender set up
Insert 11 Randi Jo with boat hook
“Where to?” Gunter asks them.
“Check in over there.” One man speaks a little broken English. The other speaks only Italian. Gunter grabs his document folder and rushes off, eager to get it over with so he can eat and rest. For now, at least we are tied up snug and safe. I fill in the logbook. It is 1100. Our passage was 294 miles.
“We’ll have lunch ready when you get back. Good luck,” I call after him.
I take a look around at the ugly port. A construction zone with two orange cranes and wire netting over the concrete all along the quay. A high fence with more wire netting so one cannot get in or out. A four-lane highway, and beyond that, railroad tracks. Ugly cement high rises with peeling paint and rusted balconies. We are obviously in a poor part of town. I know that we will not stay here long. I understand that Reggio is one of the primary recruiting grounds for the Cosa Nostra (Italian Mafia). It looks it.
While waiting for Gunter—it seems like forever—I look at alternatives. Messina’s Marina del Nettuno quoted me 170 euros per night, with only a two-day maximum. Even if we paid that exorbitant fee, we would have to move on anyway. Anything along the Strait of Messina would be busy, crowded, with untenable anchorages in strong winds, which the Strait is known for. We need R&R, peace and quiet, where we don’t have to worry about “moving the bucket” for a long, long while. We are sick and tired of playing the Flying Dutchman, without a port to come home to.
I consider sailing farther north, along the Italian coast, instead of chancing crowded Sicily in the high season.
The description of the Tyrrhenian Sea in the Pilot looks good to me now:
Along the mainland coast, the winds are generally light in the summer with sea and land breezes producing the most predictable winds…By following the coast around from Capo Palinuro and on down to Vibo Valentia and Tropea you will have one of the best cruising grounds in Italy to yourself. This high mountainous coastline is wonderful with a good scattering of little visited harbors along its length.
Forget Reggio Calabria. This less touristy coast will be our new promised land! Lunch ready and waiting, we continue to wait for Gunter. I plot the new course. With his OK, we make plans to leave tomorrow.
Gunter climbs down onto the rubber barrel and onto Pacific Bliss, hot, hungry, angry, and frustrated. Clearing in was a horrible experience.
“Worse. Rude. I just sat there waiting for them to process my papers, for 2 ½ long hours, fuming. Then I realized that the three men were just sitting there, chatting, not working on my papers at all. I feel so unwelcome here. And just look at this; we can’t even get out of this marina and port area; we are trapped again; this is ugly…ugly.”
“Don’t look at it. Let’s put up the bimini so we can’t see the view. We will only stay here overnight. We have enough provisions.”
After lunch and dishes, we head to our berths. I am devoid of feelings and emotions, worn out like a well-used dishrag finally hung out to dry. I turn on the fan in my cabin and spread eagle beneath it, not moving a muscle. We all fall into a dead sleep
For dinner, I add a liberal splash of red wine to the rest of our pasta sauce, and bring up a new bottle of sauvignon cabernet from our wine bilge. I spread out our festive Polynesian print oilcloth over the cockpit table. We keep the bimini up to close off the view. Gunter is in a better mood, talking about Tropea, our new promised land. We decide not to call them first. They could turn us down. We’re prepared to beg for a few weeks’ berth. But who knows? Maybe they will welcome us there with open arms. Hope springs eternal…
We make plans to head out at 0600 tomorrow. It will be another long day—over 40 nautical miles. And if they don’t take us, we’ll have to go even farther up the coast.
Mattanza (The Killing).
Later, with access to internet, I research the practice of tuna and swordfish killing by bringing the drift nets in an ever-tightening circle. What I find makes me sick and angry. In Sicily, catching the bluefin tuna at spawning time is called Mattanza (The Killing). No wonder we felt like Pacific Bliss was trapped like a dolphin! They indeed, are one of the casualties of this practice. Of course, this type of fishing is banned, but this is Italy. After the European Union passed a law against using the large drift nets to block the passage of large fish, the fishermen totally blocked the Strait of Messina with their nets, stopping all commercial traffic. So the practice continues here, unabated.
Driftnets are called "walls of death." They are primarily used to catch dwindling stocks of swordfish, but are also responsible for regularly trapping and killing whales, dolphins and turtles that happen to cross their path.
Driftnets have been banned for years by the United Nations, the European Union, the International Commission for Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) and the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean, (GFCM). In other words, they are most definitely illegal.
Despite millions of euros being spent on decommissioning driftnets, they are still widely used in the Mediterranean. Hundreds of thousands of kilometres of these illegal nets are loose in the waters, indiscriminately killing marine life.
In 2006, Greenpeace confronted and confiscated driftnets from Italian vessels, including one that had received €28,000 in grants to change its fishing gear!
Vessels from Italy and Spain—copying a new practice already undertaken in the Pacific—are dropping giant walls of nylon mesh into the water that stretch as far as 15 miles long and 40 feet deep. South Korean fishermen, operating far from their shores, have used such nets in the Mediterranean, as well as the Pacific.
Scientists and Coast Guard officials say the new technology—which is intended to catch more tuna and swordfish—is causing havoc throughout the western Mediterranean by threatening many other marine animals. There are also accusations that the boatmen are ''strip mining'' fishing grounds.
This practice, of course, affects vessels too. The vast drift nets have also disrupted navigation in the busy Mediterranean waters off France, Italy and Spain. The nets have forced boatmen to make large detours, and because they are often poorly marked, they have damaged outboard motors and endangered smaller craft.
Along the same coasts in France and Italy, scientists in the last two years have recorded more than 200 dead whales and dolphins showing net markings and with their fins, flippers and tails slashed. Turtles have been found with amputated front legs. The fishermen mutilate the animals, dead or alive, to untangle them from the nylon filaments, French and Italian Coast Guard officials said.
At least 200 vessels are now believed to use drift nets in the western part of the sea. Coast Guard officials in France and Italy said they did not know the number of vessels from South Korea, but its flotilla operating from the Canary Islands has been using drift nets off the Mediterranean coast of Africa, near Malta. Spanish and Italian vessels with drift nets ply the waters roughly south of France. ''There is nothing we can do,'' an official at a coast guard station in France said. ''They are in international waters.''
Different Types of Nets: The fishermen from Spain and Italy argue that the new nets permit them to work with small crews yet multiply their catch almost 10 times. Many have bought the nets in the last six years with the help of government and European Community subsidies. Loans came easily as an incentive to switch from ''bottom trawling'' with nets regarded as destructive because they swoop up all species from the bottom of the sea.
A battle is now under way between scientists and environmentalists who want the new drift nets banned and fishermen who say their accidental catch of mammals is small.
''Dolphins blunder into the nets because their sonar does not sense the nylon filaments,'' said William Perrin, a specialist in whales and dolphins. Turtles get the nylon mesh wrapped around their legs, he said, while whales get their fins and tails entangled. If these air-breathing species cannot surface for air, they drown.
Experts say they do not know how many in the family of sea mammals called cetaceans —whales, dolphins and porpoises—are left in the Mediterranean. Striped and bottlenose dolphins are still common but sightings of sperm whales, pilot whales and goose-beaked whales have become rarer in recent years. But How Rare? ''Because it is not known how many of these animals there are, we don't know how long they can sustain this catch,'' said Mr. Perrin, who is chairman of the cetacean group of the World Conservation Union. Most such animals, he said, ''get only one calf at a time, once every few years, so it is easy to deplete them.''
National Geographic Article